Nikki Fried slams Gov. DeSantis, Surgeon General for medical cannabis ‘disaster’

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Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is speaking out with sharp criticisms of the state’s medical cannabis program changes under Gov. Ron DeSantis second Surgeon General, Dr. Joseph Ladapo.

“He is really hurting patients every single day,” Fried, a medical cannabis patient and former marijuana lobbyist, told Florida Politics during an interview Wednesday in Jacksonville

Fried went on to list a number of issues where the Florida Department of Health’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use has suffered under the current Surgeon General, whom she says is nothing short of a “disaster” for the cannabis program.

Many of these complaints converged on increasing access for smaller-capital and minority growers to enter Florida’s surging cannabis space.

Fried blasted the “doubling of the fees for the Pigford plaintiffs,” with the cost of applying for a cultivation license now up to $146,000, purportedly because of the growth of the patient base of the program, which is nearing 750,000 Floridians.

“That license: still to this day we are waiting on,” Fried said of a license for a Black farmer. “It should have been handed out in 2017.”

Fried noted that given the program’s growth, many more licenses should be distributed by the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, but haven’t been. Currently, 22 Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers, or companies, serve the nearly 750,000 patients in the state, a number that falls short of statutory threshold.

“We should be giving out 16 new licenses today, because with every 100,000 new patients, there should be four new licenses,” Fried emphasized. “He’s done nothing to move the program forward.”

A swath of eight new licenses were in fact issued in 2019, months into DeSantis’ term, when the medical cannabis program had just over 200,000 patients, less than a third of the current patient population. But as the program expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic and afterwards, licensure has not matched consumer demand. 

Seemingly arbitrary changes of administrative rules in the program also concern Fried as unfriendly to patients and physicians alike. 

“I keep hearing from doctors all across the state that they keep making changes to the program, which is confusing. They haven’t been supporting telehealth, which worked well during the pandemic.”

Ladapo’s predecessor as Surgeon General, Dr. Scott Rivkees, approved telemedicine for medical cannabis and other palliative substances on Mar. 17, 2020. 

That order ran through the summer of 2021, lapsing after DeSantis said the pandemic was over, in the waning months of the Rivkees era. 

Legislative efforts to codify telehealth for medical cannabis failed in 2022 despite bipartisan support.

“He’s really stifling growth for the patients and the industry,” Fried contended. “From my knowledge of this industry, they’re holding tight so that next year during Legislative Session they can come in and wipe out the four new licenses for every 100,000 patients.”

That would allow currently dominant multistate operators to continue to leverage and capitalize the patient base in a way Fried compared to a “monopoly,” though oligopoly would be the more correct term. 

“They have the money and the resources,” said Fried, to take advantage of the current “vertical integration” framework, which requires an MMTC to grow and process its own product from seed to sale.

“Look, I’ve been wanting to break up vertical. Give out more licenses. Right now, if you want to be a player in this industry, you have to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars. One, to be able to buy one of the licenses, because they’re not handing out more licenses, not going through the application process,” she said.

“All the licenses that are currently out there are the ones from the original set,” Fried added. “When you have vertical integration, minority businesses and small businesses can’t participate.”

“And you know who hurts at that point? The patients,” Fried continued. “Because they’re not seeing competition, which would then reduce the cost for the patients. And this is to protect the multi-state operators, which have the means to come in and buy these licenses.”

Indeed, a review of Florida’s MMTCs shows a sheet dominated by companies with commercial operations in legal and medical marijuana states from coast to coast, with rare exceptions. 

There was a time when Gov. DeSantis expressed concern about the marijuana “cartel” dominating Florida’s medical market. The Governor’s concern for free market dynamics in the Free State of Florida’s cannabis sphere soon enough gave way to other concerns, especially olfactory ones

“What I don’t like about it is if you go to some of these places that have done it, the stench when you’re out there, I mean, it smells so putrid,” he told reporters in Tallahassee in January, regarding the legalization of adult use cannabis, popularly called “recreational use.”

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